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Tucson council votes to explore using CARES act money to expand coronavirus testing

Tucson council votes to explore using CARES act money to expand coronavirus testing

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

Councilman/Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham wants a citywide testing program for the coronavirus. “The more testing we have the better,” he said.

Tucson is set to initiate discussions with other regional partners to see how it could leverage its CARES Act money to expand the region’s testing capacity, starting with city employees before eventually opening that up to the public.

The City Council unanimously approved a motion during Tuesday’s council meeting to instruct City Manager Michael Ortega to meet with county officials, health-care providers, the University of Arizona and others to discuss a plan to test 1,000 people per day over a two-month period.

Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham, who drafted the memo that outlined how the city could use the federal money for the testing plan, called the city’s action “an aggressive plan to initiate public testing to be available for anyone who wants it,” in a text to the Star.

During the meeting, he advocated for the importance of implementing something as soon as possible, saying that “we should have had a program like this two or three weeks ago.”

“The more testing we have, the better,” he said. “This is the time to start that process.”

What the council’s vote did not do is outline the specifics of a testing plan, including how much of the city’s $95 million it received through the federal CARES Act would be used for testing. But Cunningham’s memo called for antibody and diagnostic tests at sites in each of the city’s council wards, as well as the Tucson Convention Center.

Ortega said he’ll be able to bring more information before the next council meeting, while also advocating that the program be voluntary for city employees. The specifics of who will run the program will be handled by the city’s procurement process.

“I just don’t know if $4 million is enough or $4 million is too much,” he said of a potential cap on CARES Act money to be used for the testing plan.

The plan received endorsements from local health officials, including Dr. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general, who argued during the meeting in favor of a regional short- and long-term plan to handle the pandemic.

He said Tucson, which represents two-thirds of the metropolitan population, should be able to meet with Pima County, which operates the Health Department and is coordinating public testing efforts, and the UA, which has launched a statewide antibody testing effort.

“I think it’s important the city have a seat at the table,” said Carmona, also a distinguished professor at the UA. “I think it’s important that we come together as a community … and figure out a path forward that we can all agree on because that’s in the best interest of our community.”

Dr. Bob England, Pima County interim health director, said he’s “grateful” the city is offering additional resources.

He labeled the current testing capacity as “inadequate,” adding that it will remain that way until any doctor will be able to prescribe a test.

“I agree with Dr. Carmona about getting together on a plan so we can prioritize the resources that we do have and target those who need it first as we roll this out,” England said during the meeting. “In the long run, this is going to be helpful.”

England also cautioned that obtaining supplies for testing is not easy because of supply-chain shortages, adding the county is still waiting to fill some of its requests made in March.

“Money isn’t everything. Don’t be despondent if you don’t see massive results right away,” England said.

In a prepared statement, Dr. Michael Dake, the University of Arizona’s senior vice president of health sciences, similarly welcomed the idea.

“The University of Arizona would welcome an opportunity to continue coordinating with the city of Tucson and Pima County on the region’s response to the pandemic in the same way we are coordinating with the state of Arizona in conducting antibody testing for 250,000 health-care workers and first responders across the state,” he said.

Mayor Regina Romero advocated for Tucson to be part of any long-term plan for coronavirus response.

“We understand completely that Pima County is in charge and responsible for the health of our community in its entirety,” she said. “Tucson is playing an important role in this question about testing and the future planning.”

Councilman Steve Kozachik cautioned that he’s spoken with health-care providers and thinks it would be prudent for the city to support existing initiatives rather than create its own.

“If we have dollars we have to spend, why wouldn’t we invest in the systems we have in place?” Kozachik said. “I’m not sure what we’re adding to the table that doesn’t already exist.”

Cunningham labeled the program as a start until health officials can figure out expanded initiatives, such as plasma donations, and said the city has to start now, considering the decision from the state to roll back most limitations on business operations.

“I want to get started. I don’t want to wait anymore. … We need to get this process started and this testing program started as soon as possible,” he said. “I’ll be damned if he’s (Gov. Doug Ducey) going to open this state back up and the city not have widespread testing.”

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.comor 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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Justin, a two-time University of Arizona graduate, covers local government, focusing on the City of Tucson. He previously worked at the Louisville Courier Journal, Arizona Republic and Hartford Courant and has received several journalism awards.

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